This week, Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Janet Longmore was in Rwanda to participate in the Transform Africa Summit, where she spoke about the power and potential of the youth as daring social innovators who transform their communities and create opportunities for themselves and others.
The New Times' Julius Bizimungu caught up with her to give insights on DOT's work in Rwanda and how the organisation is positioning youth at the centre of their transformative programmes.
DOT helps position the youth to be daring innovators in their communities. How do you do this?
DOT has been working for almost 18 years to mobilise young people to deliver digital and entrepreneurship skills in their communities. In every country where we work, we have a local team that builds an ecosystem of partners so that we can connect young people, whether it is through educational institutions or civil society groups.
In Africa, we work in 10 countries recruiting young leaders, and we particularly make sure to bring in young women as leaders and ensure they are positioned as innovators, role models, and changemakers in their communities.
These young leaders return to their home communities and work with their peers to do technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation training. It is a peer-to-peer model that is very effective.
You speak a lot about the youth. Why do you think they are well-suited to solving challenges in their communities?
First and foremost, the youth are living and dealing with challenges every day in their communities. They are close to their communities, and we have seen that they really know better than anyone what needs to be done.
A recent survey showed that 70 per cent of the young people in Sub-Saharan Africa feel they know what's best for their communities, and they want an opportunity to be part of the solution.
For example, imagine a young woman who's frustrated with the fact that people in her community are moving away because of drought and food shortages. This is a real example - Ange Fulgencie Umutoniwase is a young woman in Nyagatare who was inspired by this challenge in her community to come up with a solution. Ange is passionate about supporting her community, so she did a great deal of research and opened a field school where she trains local farmers in practices to help them overcome drought and other issues. Because of Ange, people are actually returning to her community - climate refugees who left to secure food are returning home.
It's inspiring: young people who see challenges around them can come up with realistic and useful solutions.
We also know young people are natural and early adopters of technology - and they want to be part of a disruption. That can be a very positive and constructive combination. Ange, for example, was so successful in her initiative because she was innovative with technology. We need to engage this innovation and energy to do good, and to create jobs and opportunity.
We can't shut young people out of the jobs of the future, because they are defining what these jobs are. The population demographics are clear: 640 million young people are going to enter the labor force in Africa by 2040. If youth are not engaged in creating solutions, we are missing a huge opportunity.
DOT specifically works to make sure women and girls have equal digital opportunities. How do you do this?
We are very deliberate in engaging and listening to young women and girls about what their needs are. We look at all the challenges they are facing and design engaging solutions - and we design those solutions with them as deeply involved contributors, which is important.
For instance, in the Digital Ambassadors Program in Rwanda that has launched in five districts, we engage and work with women to develop learning opportunities that are relevant to them.
Could you tell us more about Digital Ambassadors Program and how community members are benefiting from it?
We are just finishing what we call a "proof of concept," which is in partnership with the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication. We have 50 young digital ambassadors who have worked in five districts across the country, reaching 13,000 citizens since March. They are supporting those citizens to gain important digital skills, and to access e-government services with the technology they have already available to them, like mobile phones.
The Ministry did a recent evaluation of the programme and found that 100 per cent of the citizens they spoke to would recommend it to others. Local officials have embraced it because they see the value that it brings to local economies: 85 per cent of the people who use mobile phones now don't need to travel to access government services - now they know how to do so on their mobiles. Forty per cent said the work they are currently doing in their businesses and home lives is more efficient because they have a better understanding of how to use the technology they have access to.
Citizens really feel that the program is making their lives better, and they feel they are more engaged with their country. We are excited to have established this program in Rwanda, and based on its success we are now exploring opportunities to scale it to other countries in Africa.
What can other organisations learn from how DOT has successfully involved youth and young women in building programmes that work for them?
Our core value is listening to youth and engaging with them. It isn't about designing a programme in one place and delivering it somewhere else. We work closely with young women and men to make sure that our programs work for them, that they have had a hand in designing them, and that the programs are inclusive.
We also work closely with a network of partners from government, the private sector, and communities, and this has been a key component in in growing our scale and reach in Rwanda, East Africa, and beyond.
Your organisation often talks about building a youth-led economy of social good. What opportunities are there in digital tools to make this a reality?
Young people know how to communicate and are natural adopters of new technology, but we must be deliberate to provide skills, networks, as well as access to content in local languages so that there is information to engage with. Youth can play a huge role in this by creating content themselves. I am inspired by work that Patrick Nkindi Nibonkindi is doing here in Rwanda - he is developing a search engine in Kinyarwanda that allows first-time digital users to learn how to use the Internet. Young people like Patrick are leading the way in building an economy of social good, and also an inclusive and localized digital economy.
It's also important to build digital communities that are purposeful, safe, and engaged to support young people on their journeys. This is something we do at DOT - connect youth who want to transform their communities and create opportunities to each other, to their global peers, and to mentors and other supports online. It can be a critical support system for a young person.
What advice do you have for a young person who sees a problem they want to solve, or who wants to create an opportunity for themselves?
Stay interested and engaged with your community and your peers - start by asking people about the challenges they see around them and start thinking about how you could solve those problems. Your ideas are valuable and powerful. Every challenge is a potential opportunity. Have courage, and be daring.